The Arboreal Erratic

Yellow cedars are suited to damp coastal Alaska. So what are they doing in the desert?

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This story and original artwork appeared in the Dec. 10 print edition of High Country News

Botanists have a joke about time, distance and themselves.

Where most people walk about three miles in an hour, botanists will tell you they dawdle along at one mile every three hours. After all, it is only when you pause that the green blur of a forest resolves into individual species.

Joe Rausch, head botanist for the Malheur National Forest in Oregon, claims to be different, though. The barrel-chested 44-year-old looks more like a firefighter than someone fascinated by the genetics of miner’s lettuce plants. “I am impatient for a botanist,” he said.

This “impatience” is relative. It’s true that Rausch strode down the trail, deep in central Oregon’s Aldrich Mountains, well ahead of forest geneticist Andy Bower and former Forest Service Northwest region botanist Mark Skinner, who stopped every 20 feet to inspect a new wildflower, exclaiming, “You don’t want to walk by all this stuff, do ya?” But as we switch-backed down a hot, bright slope of yellowing grass, Rausch also lingered over his fair share of plants, especially trees emblematic of the mountain range’s parched climate — juniper, ponderosa pine, mountain mahogany dangling with horsehair lichen. It was a good thing, too: Our destination was the kind you can easily miss, where a few steps take you into a different world. More…

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The Pioneer of Ruin

In a place no one seems to want, a young woman builds a home

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This article and original artwork appeared in the Sept. 17, 2018 print edition of High Country News

Most everyone speeds on the road that runs alongside Cisco, Utah. It can be hard not to, once you work your way into that feeling of empty space and no one to hold you accountable. The town, after all, doesn’t look like much — a desolate mess of ruined buildings on the scenic route from I-70 to the recreation mecca of Moab, Utah, just a few miles from the boat ramp on the Colorado River where rafters load up after running Westwater Canyon. A cursory internet search will tell you that Cisco has cameoed in car chases in the movies Thelma and Louise and Vanishing Point, and may have inspired the Johnny Cash song “Cisco Clifton’s Fillin’ Station.” Without fail, articles about Cisco will also tell you that it’s a ghost town. This irritates Eileen Muza. Cisco is not abandoned, she often points out: “I live here.

The La Sal Mountains rise up south of Eileen’s home, and Cisco stands in the Cisco Desert, in an exposed, waterless low spot that one book describes without irony as “a hole.” But Eileen has her own names for things, her own landmarks. “My Mountains.” “The One Tire Valley.” “The Green Valley.” And the Cisco Desert itself — a scrubby barren plumbed with pump jacks and shimmering with broken glass? Eileen calls that “The Unknown.”

The Unknown was not why Eileen moved to Cisco. It might be a reason that she stays, though, if she stays. It is also the reason it is so hard to stay. The desert here is not nice the way it is in Moab, with its shapely red-rock expanses and verdant cottonwood bottoms. In Cisco, even the light has blades. One time, a lake of oil leaked from a pump jack inside town limits. Another, Eileen looked up to discover two men shooting in her direction from the window of a white pickup.

And on a hot, still day in June of 2017, a man running a raft shuttle found Eileen’s dog crumpled in the weeds at the road’s shoulder. He loaded the limp body onto his trailer, blood running over his hands and drove it to her house. She was raw that afternoon, when I arrived for a visit, her face shadowed under a broad hat, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses. She hunched over a wheelbarrow as her friend Joe Bell and I helped her look for rocks to seal Cairo — pronounced Kay-ro, after Cairo, Illinois — beneath his little mound of earth. “You don’t have to help,” she said a few times, but we ignored her, pulling stones from the flats and palming them with a clang into the barrow.

She wouldn’t be getting another dog, she finally insisted. “It’s too much of a weak spot for me. I need to be really fucking strong out here.”

If I let myself be soft, she seemed to be saying, I will not last. More…

 

The Bird of Two Seas

Ringed petrel banner (2)This article and my original illustrations appeared in The Atlantic’s Life Up Close series on July 20, 2018

To save the tiny seabird, scientists are venturing to its secret home in the Atacama Desert—and sticking their noses into a lot of stinky holes in the ground.

The peninsula northwest of the industrial city of Antofagasta, on Chile’s northern desert coast, is haloed with seabirds in flight. Pelicans lumber past wheeling gulls. Flocks of boobies cut the haze around Punta Tetas—Tits Point—like an avian punch line.

Farther from shore, where the inappropriately named Pacific begins its wild pitch and yaw, is the domain of the order Procellariiformes: birds with long, hooked bills and tubular nostrils that spend most of their lives above the open ocean. The largest of these are the albatrosses, soarers with severe brows and stiff, straight wings that span several feet. The smallest—small enough to hold in one hand—are the storm petrels. Most of the storm petrels that ply the air off this coast are brownish black, with crescents of lighter feathers across their shoulders and the erratic flight patterns of a bat. When they drop to the water’s surface to dip mouthfuls of food, they seem to run across it. This habit inspired the name of the birds’ original taxonomic family, recently split into two: Hydrobatidae, meaning “water walkers.”

The Spanish name for storm petrels is golondrinas de mar, or golondrinas de la tempestad—“swallows of sea,” “swallows of storm.” Sailors of old thought they heralded bad weather, and called them “Mother Carey’s chickens,” emissaries carrying warnings from the Virgin Mary or ship-sinking gales from darker spirits.

Among these far-flying little birds, one can be particularly difficult to find: the ringed storm petrel, or Oceanodroma hornbyi. It has dark wings with white half-moons, like the other petrels here, but its face and belly flicker bright white, and it sports a collar and a rakish masked cap of dark gray. While the other storm petrels seem abundant, the ringed arrives alone, and is gone quickly: a dipping turn like a wink, then away. It rarely appears less than 30 miles from shore, and ranges 300 miles farther out, where gossamer flying fish launch from wave faces like butterflies and the seafloor plunges thousands of feet.

To a storm petrel, the U.S. naturalist and author Louis J. Halle once wrote, the continents are a “mere rim for the once great ocean that envelops the globe.” This ocean is its own landscape, divided by changes in temperature, salinity, wind, and other factors into different habitats. Ringed petrels find theirs in the cold, nutrient-rich Humboldt Current that flows north from the southern tip of South America along the Chilean and Peruvian coasts. They spend so much of their lives over the Humboldt that they’re considered endemic to the current: more native to moving water than to earth.

Even so, the birds must eventually alight on solid ground to raise their young, and on land they’re even harder to find. Like most seabirds, storm petrels often nest in extreme terrains, such as remote islands and seaside cliffs, which protect brooding adults, eggs, and chicks from mammalian predators. They tend to travel overland only at night, and hide in crevices by day.

For more than 150 years, the ringed storm petrel’s breeding grounds remained a mystery. Then, in April of 2017, a group of volunteer naturalists found the world’s first documented nests. They were 45 miles inland from the Chilean coast, deep in the driest nonpolar region on Earth: the Atacama Desert. More…

 

No Happy Ending for the Vaquita

IMG_9809This article originally appeared in Hakai Magazine in November, 2017.

The little porpoise seemed perfect. She had been lifted from the ocean onto a boat, but her breathing and heart rate were regular. She was plump and well over a meter long. She looked old enough and healthy enough to bear young. When Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho joined the veterinarians alongside her around dusk on November 4, he bent to peer into her face. “It was one of the most beautiful sensations of my life,” he remembers. “Finally, I can see those beautiful eyes.”

At last, he thought, he was looking at a glimmer of hope in the otherwise grim future of the vaquita marina—the little cow of the sea—the world’s smallest and rarest cetacean.

Rojas-Bracho, a marine mammal expert at Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change, has studied the vaquita since the early 1990s. In that time, the species, found exclusively in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California, has plunged from just under 600 individuals to fewer than 30. They are the unintended victims of fishers setting gill nets for shrimp and other creatures, and of poachers illegally netting a fish called the totoaba for their swim bladder, a product worth thousands of US dollars on the Chinese black market.

Vaquitas are famously elusive and shun the noise of boats. Rojas-Bracho, like others who study them, learned much of what he knows about the vaquita from a great distance, or by examining carcasses found adrift at sea or washed up on the beach.

Now here was a living one, the first adult caught during a desperate, meticulously planned effort to stave off the species’ extinction. More…

Avoiding extinction

VAQUITA FINAL WITH BORDERThis article originally appeared in Hakai Magazine Sept. 20, 2017

Giving Mexico’s rarest porpoise, the vaquita, a fighting chance in the face of poverty, corruption, and greed.

In April, Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California is a place of light. Nothing blocks the sun on its arc across the sky. It glares from the green water, and beams off the pale desert and buckled mountain ranges to the west. It foils wide hat brims, burns through shirts, sears the insides of nostrils. It bleaches the very air.

And on this still day, its bright fingers wring the color from several carcasses tangled in a drifting net. The MV Farley Mowat, a 34-meter ship that belongs to the environmental group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, turned up the mess while on a special patrol for the Mexican government. Crew members watch their grim find twist in the water for three hours before a Mexican Navy boat arrives to take over. A half dozen military and environment officials mill on its foredeck and roof. Another man, his face wrapped in a camouflage bandana and his arm cradling a machine gun, stands watch in the stern—like a period at the end of a sentence of warning.

At last, two of the officials tangle their fists in the mesh.

What they heave from the sea is so dead it’s almost spectral: boluses of white flesh dangle from backbones thick as arms, and gaping jaws tear away as if attached with wet toilet paper. As the men discard rotten parts and slowly haul in the net, three fresher, silver bodies surface, revealing the carcasses’ identity: totoaba, a species of endangered fish that can grow to be the size of a large man.

Mexican officials aboard a navy boat haul in an illegal gill net containing about 20 totoabas in varying stages of decay. Sea Shepherd’s MV Farley Mowat found the net drifting in the Upper Gulf of California after the rotting fish swelled with gas and raised it to the surface. Photo by Sarah Gilman

In the early 1900s, totoabas were so plentiful here that they helped spawn the primary fishing communities of the Upper Gulf, including San Felipe, a sprawl of buildings and potholed roads that lines the nearshore. By 1975, though, damming on the Colorado River had irrevocably altered totoaba spawning habitat, and fishermen had nearly obliterated the species for its meat and its swim bladder, which fetched a premium for its use in Chinese medicinal soup. That year, Mexico made it illegal to catch the fish, followed soon after by international and US law. But today’s net is a hint that the trade has surged back to ravenous life. It’s not yet clear what that means for totoabas: the first survey of recovering stocks is only now underway.

What is clear is that the nets destroy much more than their intended catch. And their reappearance has made stark the fatal cracks in a longstanding effort to save another creature, one that is much harder to see, and getting more difficult to find every day: the vaquita marina. More…

 

The Engineer of Mountain Walkers

How trail designer Loretta McEllhiney protects mountains from people.

IMG_1418This story originally appeared in the print edition of High Country News on June 26, 2017

What do you see when you look at a trail? Dirt and rocks? A line sketched across the landscape by 100,000 footsteps? The adventure of some not-yet-visible lake or summit or cirque?

Master Forest Service trail designer Loretta McEllhiney sees those things, too. But she also believes that a good trail is about controlling two unstoppable forces: People flowing up a mountain, and water flowing down.

And on a wintry May morning, I provide a perfect object lesson about one tool McEllhiney uses to steer these two juggernauts: I fall hard on a hillside and get snow down my pants.

“Sideslope,” McEllhiney says helpfully, after checking to make sure I’m OK. That’s why she’s picked this route for a new trail on the southern toe of Colorado’s Mount Elbert, where we’re bushwhacking over fallen aspens slick with fresh snow: The land here is steep enough that the path contouring across it will be the only place you can walk without tumbling ass-over-teakettle, and water will drain easily off its downhill edge, instead of scouring a trench down its center. “Sideslope,” McEllhiney concludes as I brush off my butt, “really helps confine people onto a bench.” More…

Go North, Young Woman

In a place no one can see you, you can see yourself more clearly.

IMG_6835This essay originally appeared in the print edition of High Country News March 16, 2017.

Think of your skin as a map.

Its marks inscribe a story of your life. The raggedness of your fingertips from biting your nails. The lines in your cheeks from laughing. The scar from surgery to help knit broken bone. The burn you gave yourself when only pain would calm you. The nick on your wrist that, whenever you touch it, makes you think of the talus field where you stumbled and cut yourself, the mountain lake where you washed the blood away.

On this August afternoon, the skin on my calves is tanned dark, crisscrossed with scratches, welted with bugbites, scummed over with beaver pond. On this August afternoon, my skin says that I’ve ventured into the boreal forest, and that it’s kicking my ass.

I’m a few days into a 16-day canoe trip with five girlfriends down the remote Spatsizi and Upper Stikine rivers — joined threads in the high reaches of a great system of braided, salmon-bearing waterways that originate in a swath of northern British Columbia known as the Sacred Headwaters. It’s a place toothy with mountain ranges, broad-shouldered with tundra plateaus, and furred with endless forests of white and black spruce and bursts of poplar just turning gold. More…